By Keith Regan, Community Reporter
Westborough–Town Meeting voters March 14 passed a $91 million operating budget and approved a $27 million renovation of the Sarah W. Gibbons Middle School, while also authorizing the creation of a full-time economic development director position and backing a move to use outside town counsel.
As many as 210 registered voters were on hand for the Saturday afternoon session held at the Westborough High School. Amid debate over the town’s funding priorities and financial responsibility–and even some debate over how to debate–voters worked through 10 of the 27 articles on the warrant, including the Gibbons project, before adjourning until later in the evening.
The town’s operating budget drew the bulk of the discussion, with voters spending well over an hour to work through the spending plan.
Among the sticking points was a move away from a full-time, in-house town counsel. Several residents spoke favorably of the in-house counsel approach, and lauded the work of former counsel Gregory Franks, who held the post until last month. Other residents expressed concern that using a firm instead of an individual attorney would mean no one is accountable for legal decisions.
But Town Manager Jim Malloy said the town’s legal needs have evolved, with more need for specialized legal advice on employment law and other issues, and said the move would likely result in cost savings.
Voters also approved moving the town’s economic development coordinator position from part-time to full-time.
The School Department’s $45.1 million budget, which Superintendent Amber Bock said was not just about maintaining the school’s educational quality but about moving forward, also drew its share of debate. For instance, voters asked why the district had not adopted bus fees–a decision strongly defended by the school committee.
“A strong district isn’t just treading water,” Bock said, while touting statistics such as growth in the number of National Merit Scholars at Westborough High School from 11 in 2012 to 27 this year. Bock also said renewed enrollment growth will drive future budget decisions, with 30 new students enrolled since the start of the current school year. “We must grow to meet the challenging demands our students face.”
Just before the Gibbons project article, Selectmen Chair George Barrette suggested recessing the meeting, following a tradition for the meeting to take a dinner break. But those in attendance voted to press on, and also rejected a bid by former moderator John Harrington to reshuffle the order of articles, which would have deferred the Gibbons decision until later in the evening.
Gibbons School Principal Jack Foley laid out the $27 million renovation project of the middle school, saying the work would extend the useful life of the building–the core section of which dates to 1956–another 50 years, and would be far more cost-effective than building a new school. The town will pay just over $15 million of the project cost, with the rest being reimbursed by the state, Foley said.
Some voters wanted to reconsider the renovation plan in favor of new construction, which could solve some of the traffic flow issues on the school property.
“We’re spending all this money and get no new classrooms,” said resident John Arnold. “The police department has been waiting 10 to 15 years and this will set that back.”
Still others noted that doing the school project would mean further delays in renovation of the Forbes Municipal Building, where the police headquarters are located. Police Chief Alan Gordon said he supports the school renovation, but acknowledged it would mean the town has to wait another two to three years before moving on its department’s project in order to keep debt levels in line with town policy. That in turn could expose the town to liability risk, as the building housing the department does not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The further we push it out, the more risk there is to the town,” Gordon said.
Several parents expressed concern about how the Gibbons project would affect students.
“I can’t believe if students are having to share all this space, it’s not going to affect them,” said resident Lisa Harrington.
Foley said a phasing plan has been drafted and that the town’s construction managers would further develop that plan.
“I share your concerns,” he told Harrington and other parents.
In the end, voters approved the Gibbons project by a vote of 157-36.
Earlier in the meeting, voters also approved a revamp of the town’s personnel job descriptions, a project Malloy said was three years in the making. Three employees were moved to higher pay grades and while about a half dozen were adjusted to a lower level, the changes will not impact current employees.
Voters sided with the Advisory Finance Committee over selectmen in a dispute over how to use some of the town’s free cash. In the end, voters sided with the Finance Committee’s approach of using $250,000 in free cash to fund the AFC’s reserve account for next year, a move that will save the average taxpayer $32 next year but also goes against the town’s recent practice of only using recurring revenues to fund recurring expenses. Selectman Ian Johnson noted that the policy change had helped the town recover from being on the brink of needing a Proposition 2- 1/2 override.
“We don’t want to go back there,” he said.
But AFC Chairman Gary Wells said the town was hit with a surprise increase in regional retirement costs that helped justify the move and in the end, voters narrowly agreed, by a vote of 108-88.
Malloy began the meeting by painting a relatively favorable picture of the town’s finances and underlying economic conditions. Although the budget approved by voters will raise taxes more than the 2 percent target set by selectmen, he noted that increases have been kept below those levels three of the last four years. He also said the town appears to have moved past the foreclosure crisis, with just one condominium and three single family homes being foreclosed upon last year, and continues to have one of the area’s lowest unemployment rates, at 3.6 percent.